By Sophia Yu
Perhaps before social media, there was a time when the phrase, “escaping into nature,” embodied what it implies: quiet, isolation, and a genuine appreciation for the outdoors. Scrolling through posts of materialistic and exclusionary Zion trips on Instagram, I am skeptical that these same peaceful characteristics continue to define “outdoorsy” culture in 2021. Rather than solely for the purpose of embracing nature itself, being “Granola” has become a rising media trend with deep-rooted classist undertones. These undertones only serve to gatekeep the outdoors to white communities of higher socioeconomic status.
Accessibility to the outdoors goes beyond aesthetics; it is a matter of well-being. The downward trend of mental health in our generation is both a result of the isolating Internet age and the recent COVID-19 pandemic. At the university level, increasing isolation has created a wave of lonely students struggling with unforeseen levels of anxiety and depression disorders. And while we may be depressed, we’re not helpless. Plenty of scientific articles and research demonstrate that time in nature can improve your mental health. Furthermore, spending time in nature helps our generation gain exposure and appreciation for the outdoors: a key sentiment in maintaining our environment.
If it is well-known that spending time in nature can improve mental health and increase environmental awareness, the next question is then why college students may have trouble engaging with it. The answer lies in the underlying “granola” social hierarchy surrounding outdoor activities.
One facet of the “granola” hierarchy lies in the prestige associated with outdoor gear. Most of us can recognize brand names like Patagonia, LuluLemon, and North Face. And while these brands may be notable for their quality equipment, in college they are more notable for the social clout – hence, price tag – that comes with them. Unsurprisingly, the students who buy these brands tend to come from families of higher economic status.
While not owning a Patagonia quarter zip will not stop you from venturing outdoors, the problem with the “granola” gear hierarchy is that it socially characterizes those with more expensive gear as more equipped for and deserving of time in the outdoors. Expensive gear creates the presumption that an individual is more experienced and “knows what they’re doing” which is discouraging to students who can’t afford these brands. The fact that the divide between students’ who can and can’t afford these name-brands seems to reflect racial and class divides further justifies how problematic this hierarchy is.
A cumulative problem is the demographic representation of students engaging in outdoor spaces on social media. If you try searching #granolagirl on Instagram, an exclusively white, skinny, and cisgender female feed shows you exactly who society believes is entitled to the outdoors, and even more importantly: who isn’t. These cisgender white women have every right to enjoy outdoor spaces, but the lack of publicized diversity in nature suggests to young people of color that they are outsiders in these spaces.
This outsider feeling can not only make it intimidating for POC to explore outdoor parks but dangerous too. Considering that many national parks are in less progressive areas of the country, it is understandable how communities of color may fear racism and violent attacks in a white-dominated space. When coupled with the “granola” gear hierarchy, exploring these outdoor spaces can feel almost impossible for marginalized groups.
As students, we can open up the outdoors to all communities by supporting local brands and movements embracing diversity in the outdoors. Instead of #granolagirl, we should look to #DiversifyOutdoors: a campaign started by Danielle Williams, a black and disabled woman, to create safe spaces for underrepresented communities. Another example is Ambreen Tariq’s Brown People Camping, an initiative focusing on promoting diversity in public lands by utilizing personal narratives and digital storytelling.
A final, and perhaps the most important, way to embrace outdoor diversity is by respecting the origins of the land that our National Parks stand on. We often forget that American soil is stolen land from Indigenous peoples; therefore, these whitewashed misrepresentations of the outdoors are overwhelmingly harmful and disrespectful–especially given the violent history of white colonizers toward Indigenous people. Nature is a special place: full of healing, peace, and appreciation. And in the age of COVID and Instagram, getting lost in nature might be exactly what all students need most; but until access to nature is no longer gatekept by those touting expensive gear and iPhones, this reality cannot be realized. In light of our generation’s mental health epidemic and an incoming environmental crisis, we must place more importance into making the outdoors a welcoming place for everyone.